Tuesday, April 27, 2021

All Is True: A Review (Review #1481)


The play may be the thing, but All Is True dives into the man behind The Bard. As William Shakespeare comes to terms with his legacy artistic and familial, All Is True is a pleasant homage to him, albeit one that was a bit dry.

After the Globe Theater burns to the ground its owner, William Shakespeare (director Kenneth Branagh) goes home to Stratford-upon-Avon to rejoin his family. His years of absence, coupled with the early death of his only son Hamnet, has alienated him from the survivors. His wife, Anne (Judi Dench) has him sleep in the best bed rather than their formerly shared second-best one. His spinster daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) is bitter towards her father for favoring her dead twin. His married daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson) is stuck with the Puritan John Hall (Hadley Fraser), whose forced piety makes her extremely unhappy.

William soon starts tending a garden, contemplating his life along the way. Visits from patrons and friends, such as the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) and Ben Johnson (Gerard Horan) give him pause to think that perhaps he won't be forgotten. He also manages to stand up to Stratford bully Sir Thomas Lucy (Alex Macqueen), who has stomped upon the Shakespeares for two generations, and made amends with his family and its past. Judith finds happiness with rakish Tom Quinley (Jack Colgrave Hirst) and at last the Sweet Swan of Avon can put aside the cares and troubles of his soul before he too like chimneysweepers comes to dust.

Perhaps the biggest issue with All Is True is in how the film is staged. Good or bad, right or wrong, Branagh decided to have little cutting within scenes. As such, we get essentially a filmed play. There's a bit of unimaginative visuals in All Is True, which is surprising given how much freedom film can bring.

Take for example when Southampton pays a call to Shakespeare. We go from McKellen to Branagh to McKellen to Branagh and back and forth. It just feels so dry visually.

There are very few scenes that have any genuine passion in them. Instead, for most of All Is True there is a sense of excessive, almost stiff formality. Up to a point that can work given how tightly wound up the family dynamics are. However, even when Judith finally lets herself go with Tom it feels a bit remote, as if it was more acting than being.

The only genuine moment All Is True perks up from this somewhat somber tone is when McKellen rides up to pay a call on one he considers the son of Apollo. There's a wit and joy and veiled sarcasm as Southampton puts Sir Thomas in his place. This was a moment where Ben Elton's screenplay gave the film a spark, a life, but it was sadly a brief respite from the rather formal structure of All Is True.

This does take away a bit from some strong performances. Quibble about the illogic of casting people of the wrong age for the roles, but Dench and McKellen were delightful as Anne and Southampton. Dench kept to the formal manner the film had, but she also showed a warmth that came as she slowly reconciled with her husband. McKellen clearly stole the show in his much too brief role of Southampton, forever hedging on whether he was the handsome man of the sonnets.

Branagh, perhaps the most vocal Shakespearean champion of our age, brings the conflict of William Shakespeare the man. His Will is haunted, sad, but also made aware that he has brought real magic to people. Standing up to Sir Thomas shows now a man in full, not afraid of his legacy or his future.

All Is True is a bit too formal in its telling of the Artist as an Old Man. However, it has just enough in it to make one wonder about the man who gave us so many brave new worlds.




Monday, April 26, 2021

93rd Academy Awards: A Review


The 93rd Academy Awards reminded me of the Best Picture winner Nomadland: started out interesting then dragged, and dragged and dragged. Add to that one of the most disastrous closing moments and you had a muted feel to what is meant to be the highpoint of a year in film.

Much history was made last night. Let's hit some of them.

All but one of the Best Picture nominees won at least one Oscar. Only The Trial of the Chicago 7 went home empty-handed, losing all 6 of its nominations. 

Best Actress winner Francis McDormand is one acting Oscar short of tying Katharine Hepburn's record four wins in this category. McDormand also won as a Best Picture producer.

Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins at 83 becomes the oldest winner in any acting category.

Best Supporting Actress winner Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) becomes the second Asian actress to win in this category. Unlike the previous Asian actress to win here, Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara, Yuh-jung won for a primarily Korean-language performance.

Yuh-jung's fellow nominee Glenn Close now has tied Peter O'Toole for the most acting Oscar nominations without a win at eight losses in total.

Best Original Song nominee Diane Warren has it worse. Her loss for the The Life Ahead song Io Si (Seen) is her twelfth loss with no win yet.

Nomadland's director, Chloe Zhao, is the second woman and third Asian director to win in this category (after Ang Lee and Bong Joon-ho).

Best Costume Design winner Anne Roth (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) becomes the oldest female winner in any category at 89.

Best Hair & Makeup winners Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neil and Jamika Wilson (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) become the first all-non-Caucasian winners in this category.

The record of the Best Film Editing winner (Sound of Metal) ending up losing to Best Picture to a fellow Film Editing nominee (Nomadland) continues for the eighth year. 

There were a few genuine surprises. I don't think anyone expected Mank to win outside Production Design, so its Cinematography win over the heavily-favored Nomadland led Film Twitter to audibly gasp. Most people, I think, also didn't think Sound of Metal would take anything outside Sound, so its Film Editing win was also a surprise. Best Original Song going to Judas and the Black Messiah's Fight For You may have surprised, but this category never had a favorite or frontrunner. However, it says a lot about this year's Oscars when the biggest upsets were in Live-Action and Documentary Shorts (Two Distant Strangers and Colette respectively). 

Most winners were expected, so even the highly divisive Best Documentary Feature winner My Octopus Teacher wasn't a surprise. However, it was near the end that things fell apart in spectacular fashion. 

This year, the Academy Award producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh, with the Academy's blessing, opted to restructure the award presentations. Some elements worked (not cutting off speeches), some did not (having clips for a few categories but not for the acting ones). Why exactly Best Documentary Feature had clips of the nominees but Best Actor didn't is a puzzling and curious choice. 

Other elements drew tedious to the small audience who braved the entire presentation. Presenters waxing rhapsodic about each nominee's history soon lost its luster and become both rote and boring. However, it was the final three awards that made the 93rd Academy Awards a fiasco that somehow has eclipsed the La La Land/Moonlight chaos as among if not the worst final presentation in the Academy's history.

Since time immemorial the final award is Best Picture. For reasons still unclear it was decided that the final three awards would be Best Picture, Best Lead Actress and Best Lead Actor. Once Nomadland was announced as Best Picture the entire affair had an anticlimactic feel, as if we were done. I figure some viewers probably changed the channel to the more competitive and suspenseful San Diego Padres vs. Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game. Instead, it went for a "Hollywood ending" that blew up spectacularly in their faces.

It was highly expected that the late Chadwick Boseman would win for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a sentimental wave carrying him to victory. The Academy and the award producers could see how it would all play out: a standing ovation for someone taken much too soon, a weeping widow accepting an award her late husband had a very good chance of winning had he lived, a beautiful, iconic crowd-pleasing feel-good moment. Television viewers would have had a beautiful end credit scene.

Instead, a very unenthusiastic Joaquin Phoenix unenthusiastically, almost catatonically, read Anthony Hopkins' name for The Father before unenthusiastically accepting on his behalf and the entire show ended almost abruptly (and probably unenthusiastically).

Immediately pundits and Boseman fans began howling with rage, going so far as to attack and belittle Hopkins for committing the horrible sin of winning. Unsurprisingly racism was thrown about to explain this loss. People were angry that Hopkins had won over Boseman, and things grew to almost idiotic levels. "Why didn't Hopkins give a speech?!" the Boseman group howled. "Why didn't Hopkins show up?!" they bemoaned.

The concept that an 83-year-old man could be asleep at 4 A.M. in his Wales home versus opting to fly in to a COVID-infected area when so many people (including probably himself) thought he had little to no chance of winning somehow escaped those enraged over something said 83-year-old man had no control over.

As shocking as it may be, Anthony Hopkins had no say in whether or not he won an Oscar.

Worse, those whose emotions ranged from being "in shock" to "devastated" over Boseman's loss either never saw The Father or let their feelings for Boseman blind them to a sad fact: Best Actor was highly competitive. Anyone who saw all five nominees and was honest with him/herself knew the race was between Boseman, Hopkins and Sound of Metal's Riz Ahmed. Many were reporting that voters were checking off Hopkins because they "knew" Boseman was going to win anyway, a warning sign that Glenn Close supporters willed themselves into ignoring last year. Those who do not learn from history...

Hopkins had as good a chance of winning as either Boseman or Ahmed (Mank's Gary Oldman and Minari's Steven Yeun were highly unlikely to win). Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, Anthony Hopkins gave a brilliant, devastating performance in The Father.

It wasn't as if Chadwick Boseman lost to James Coco. 

I confess that I would have voted for Hopkins over Boseman, though it would have been an extremely difficult choice. I wavered between them and Ahmed, but I ultimately decided that while Boseman was brilliant in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, he was still "acting". His performance seemed stubbornly stagey, as if he was acting on the stage. Hopkins was "being" as this proud, stubborn but ultimately lost and pained man. Ahmed, Boseman and/or Hopkins were all worthy of a win, but that it was ultimately Hopkins was and should not be seen as a slam or rejection of Boseman.

Too many pundits wanted Boseman to win because it would be "the last chance" to honor him. I'm not big on turning a category into a de facto Lifetime Achievement Award, which is what those pulling for Boseman seem to have wanted. Yes, Chadwick Boseman gave a sensational performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, but sentiment alone is not a reason for someone to win an Oscar. Would there have been the outrage we've seen if a living Boseman had won over a living Hopkins or a dead Hopkins had won over a living Boseman?

Anthony Hopkins deserved to win. He did not "steal" anything from anyone. To say otherwise, especially after Hopkins' classy and brief acceptance speech where he paid tribute to Boseman is disgusting. Toxic fandom hits new lows when people feel free to beat up on an 83-year-old for winning for a performance said fans probably haven't even seen.

In retrospect, it's more boggling that the Academy opted to have Best Actor presented last when Best Actress was the more competitive and suspenseful category. Best Actress simply had no frontrunner. It was anyone's guess who would win. One day it was Promising Young Woman's Carey Mulligan who had it in the bag. Next day Ma Rainey's Black Bottom star Viola Davis was about to make history as the second black Lead Actress winner. Day after that, The United States vs. Billie Holiday's Andra Day could also be the second black Lead Actress winner. 

Instead, it was McDormand, and her accepting right after accepting Best Picture felt bizarre, almost uninteresting, anticlimactic.

It seems more and more clear that the Academy and producers thought Boseman would win and wanted to end on that note. It was a cynical use of a late beloved actor for a "big moment" versus actually focusing on those nominated. This disastrous moment will haunt the Academy for years to come.

Speaking of those no longer with us, the In Memoriam was shameful. Playing at what looked like double speed, the Academy rushed through the montage to where it was almost impossible for viewers to match the name with the face, let alone their accomplishments. In a year we lost one of the last figures of the so-called Golden Age of Cinema (Olivia de Havilland), to give her 3 seconds of remembrance is galling. The use of Stevie Wonder's As isn't to me horrifying or in bad taste. Dubious, yes, but not monstrous. 

However, given the hyperdrive In Memoriam followed a bizarre comedy bit about Best Original Song nominees/winners trivia that concluded with Glenn Close shaking her money-maker to Da Butt, it seemed so tone-deaf and coarse. The Academy should really just hand over In Memoriam to Turner Classic Movies, which manages to give the honored dead both time and context.

The 93rd Academy Awards started well only to slowly speed up to a rushed, chaotic and disastrous finish. And I'm sure the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will wonder why ratings continue to fall.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Icon (2021): A Review (Review #1480)



Is one condemned to repeat the mistakes of our fathers? Icon asks itself that question, and while it does not break new ground in its story, it is elevated by a strong central performance that makes it worth a watch.

Young love has repercussions for high schoolers Sam Tolentino, Jr. (Parker Padgett) and his girl Ana (Devon Hales). She becomes pregnant and now debates on whether or not to have an abortion. Should she want one, it is $850, which neither of them have. Sam decides the best way to raise the money quickly is to sell drugs for his friend's brother Curtis (Johnny Lo).

Unbeknown to Sam, he is essentially following in the footsteps of his father, Sam Tolentino, Sr., currently serving time in prison himself. Sam's mother Lisa (Julia Denton) has been firm about keeping all contact with his father off, but with the chaos of his life he begins his own search. That search leads to shocking discoveries about Sam, Sr. and about himself. Ultimately, Sam Tolentino, Jr. realizes he does not have to repeat history.

Writer/director Tony Ahedo made a film that in some ways is quite familiar. A lot of Icon seems almost predictable: the unexpected teen pregnancy, the poor method of acquiring fast money, the troubled relationship with the parents. You are not surprised by much if anything in Icon expect perhaps when Sam gets revenge on thugs who beat and robbed him.

Even the aspect of Sam, Sr. not living up to the hopes and ideas that Sam, Jr. has are almost to be expected. As a side note, I figure this is where Icon gets its name: Sam not so much deifying his father but holding out an idea of him being someone worthy of adoration. 

What Icon may lack in originality it makes up with a wonderful performance by Parker Padgett, a young actor starting to make his mark. His Sam is flawed, difficult, in so many ways making ghastly decisions one after another. However, he is also regretful, pained, deeply hurt and determined to do right. 

Padgett's tic of rubbing his hair fiercely whenever confronted with a major issue might have been distracting but I found it a reflection of Sam the person. Perhaps it was a bit distracting given how I noticed and mentioned it. However, Padgett gave a very real portrait of an average young man, finding himself in this situation and attempting to work it out on his own.

It does make one wonder if he had told Lisa rather than try to keep all this secret things would have worked better for everyone concerned. 

Parker Padgett holds your attention throughout Icon as Sam: his thrill at young love, his fear when confronting Curtis, the total emotional collapse on a drunken night, the disappointment and rage when he finds his father is no one to look up to. He's the dominant force in Icon, and while at times a certain unreality came through on the whole this film should be a good calling card for his future career. 

In her role as Ana, Hales did a good job though at times like Padgett and the rest of the cast seemed a bit held back by the script. Sometimes dialogue and performances felt as if they were dialogue and performances versus being from real people. Denton's Lisa suffered the most from this, her performance seeming forced and not quite real.

Icon also falls into some other traps a lot of teen-centric films do, like the musical montages that percolate through the film. These are minor points, for on the whole I think Icon is a surprisingly moving film that will appeal to most audiences. It isn't perfect but neither are the characters.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Rise of Catherine the Great: A Review


The story of Catherine II, Czarina of All the Russias, has proved itself again and again irresistible to filmmakers. We have a curious case in 1934 in that there were two Catherine the Great films. One is Josef von Sternberg's rather risque The Scarlet Empress starring his muse Marlene Dietrich. The British had a ready answer: Catherine the Great (also known as The Rise of Catherine the Great). The latter is quite sumptuous, befitting the Czarist Court, but in other ways it's a bit bizarre to slightly comical.

Young German Princess renamed Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner) arrives in St. Petersburg full of trepidation on having to marry the Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), heir to the Russian throne. His aunt, the Empress Elizabeth (Flora Robson) has decreed it so, and fortunately both find themselves enchanted with each other.

Soon, however, things deteriorate, with Peter preferring the company of other women. Catherine finds herself alone, claiming lovers but not actually having any. Peter is incensed that women control his life, and once Elizabeth is dead the now-Czar Peter III can do as he wishes. Humiliating Catherine by flaunting his mistress as de facto Empress, the Czar's courtiers rally around the Empress, elevating her to the throne. Despite her firm orders, her husband is quietly murdered to ensure her reign as Catherine the Great.

The Rise of Catherine the Great is a bit of a comedy within its grand costumes and lavish sets. While nowhere near as broad or farcical as Hulu's The Great, The Rise of Catherine the Great has more humor than most Catherine biopics. On his wedding day, the Grand Duke asks a courtier if he's ever been married. "Not officially," he replies, "but I have dabbled in it". Robson, who made a name for herself as Elizabeth I on film, stomps and bellows with delight, easily rattling off quips like the best of them. "Without love, marriage is simply immoral. The whole aim and sense of it is to have a man here, under your thumb".

Robson plays Empress Elizabeth as a bit of a nut, a delightful nut but a mercurial one nonetheless. She's a highlight of The Rise of Catherine the Great. It's the two other leads that I have issues with.

The Rise of Catherine the Great is the first Catherine-connected project that I know of where Czar Peter III comes across as not only generally sane but also dashing, if not handsome. One feels that Fairbanks, Jr. is slightly miscast as Peter, at least the Peter most often presented by history. No mice executions or Frederick the Great hero worship for our Grand Duke. Apart from a minor dislike for Russia this Grand Duke Peter is rational, even noble. 

A scene with his generals has him contemplating what "Ivan Ivanovich" thinks of their war games. The generals do not know who "Ivan Ivanovich" is, until Catherine explains that he is referring to the regular soldier on the field, essentially a metaphor. For someone who was allegedly bonkers, this Peter is surprisingly insightful.

When it comes to our Empress, I was less than impressed. Oftentimes through Bergner's performance Catherine comes across as a fluttering idiot, more pawn than provocateur. She doesn't seem capable of leading herself, led alone leading a coup d'etat to seize the Russian throne. I thought she was a low-rent Dietrich, though to be fair her quiet anger when disgraced by her husband at a state dinner was well-acted.

If any enjoyment comes from The Rise of Catherine the Great, it comes courtesy of the sumptuous nature of the film itself. This film is not afraid of showcasing the opulence of the Czarist Court. There is also the funny bits of dialogue, such as when Peter tells his aunt off. When told that if he does not produce an heir, she will, he replies "Which one of your many lovers will you make an honest man?", causing the Empress in part to faint.

The Rise of Catherine the Great doesn't fully rise to the subject matter, but if one is tolerant of questionable history and a somewhat fluttery lead, you can get something out of the film.  

Catherine II Feature Films & Specials

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Young Catherine (1991)

Catherine the Great (1995)

Catherine the Great (2019)

Monday, April 12, 2021

Anna Christie: A Review



"Garbo Talks!" That was the selling point in Anna Christie, as Greta Garbo, the Swedish Sphinx, finally was heard on film for the first time. A bit daring if stage-bound, Anna Christie still holds up surprisingly well.

After a nearly fifteen-year absence, Swedish sailor Chris Christopherson (George F. Marion) is going to see his daughter Anna (Garbo). Anna thinks her estranged father has moved up slightly in the world, but instead she finds he still sails on a tugboat despite his constant condemnation of "the old Devil Sea".

Despite Chris' duplicity Anna soon takes to the seagoing ways, serving as unofficial shipmate and restoring their relationship. It isn't until they rescue Irish sailor Matt (Charles Bickford) that there is trouble. Chris is distressed that his daughter would fall in love with a sailor, fearing the worse for his virtuous daughter.

Little does Papa Christopherson know that Anna has a past. Like Chris' discarded mistress Marthy (Marie Dressler), Anna has worked in the world's oldest profession to keep body and soul together. Anna's past in a Minnesota brothel is something she keeps secret, fearing her shame will drive both men away. At last though, she tells them the truth, and after both men struggle with the news, things sort themselves out with Matt not reneging on his proposal and Chris embracing his daughter and future son-in-law.

MGM executives despaired that Garbo's Swedish accent would cost them their biggest star. They had seen other silent film stars, both foreign and American, fall due to either their accents or their voices. Here, they found the perfect material to allow Garbo to have an accent, but would audiences respond to both said accent and her voice?

The answer is a firm "yes" on both counts. Anna Christie, daughter of a Swede brought up by Swedes, should have an accent. Truth be told however, I found her English quite strong. Apart from saying "yob" for "job" I didn't find Garbo's accent that strong as to make her unintelligible. Her speaking flowed quite smoothly, and soon you find the novelty of Garbo speaking, let alone speaking English, wears off. She sounds excellent and speaks quite well.

Garbo's low, sultry voice also added to her performance. It made it plausible for her to be this alluring woman to be a former hooker despite looking no less for wear. She seems almost too elegant to have plied the same trade as the more dowdy, frumpy Dressler, but that husky voice makes her first line, "Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side...and don't be stingy, baby," blend allure with a sad world-weariness. 

Overall, Garbo's performance in Anna Christie is excellent. She shows true love to Matt, genuine affection for Chris, and even hints of regret and fear when Matt tries to send Marthy away. Near the end it does become a bit theatrical, but given that Anna Christie still has some of the early sound film limitations of single set scenes and limited camera angles that can be forgiven.

Despite the struggles of early sound films, we see that Anna Christie did take surprising steps technologically. A sequence where Marthy and Chris walk to the bar is an extraordinary one, with both dialogue and street sounds coming through. The scene at Coney Island where Anna and Matt are on the roller coaster too show that director Clarence Brown were making efforts to break away from whatever barriers they faced. The roller coaster ride may not have the fluidity we are used to, but it was a bold step to film it without a rear-screen projection.

Anna Christie also has mostly strong performances from the cast. Had the category existed Marie Dressler would almost certainly been a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her performance. In turns comic and tragic, Dressler's Marthy elicits sympathy and laughs in equal measure for her drunk tramp. She dominates her scenes with Marion and is more than equal to Garbo when they share the screen. Her drunk moments were funny, but her farewell to Garbo on Coney Island is deeply moving.

Marion's Swedish Papa was strong and effective, also in turns funny and serious. It's a curious accident of history that he could either be "Chris Christopherson" or if we go by Anna's nom de guerre "Chris Christie" but I digress. I admit finding Bickford's Irish rogue a bit hard to believe, but that is a minor point. 

Anna Christie is a bit stagey and it has title cards which show how it might have still been shown as a silent film. On the whole however, it is a good film that holds up well.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Voyagers: A Review


Is it a good or bad thing to say that a movie isn't terrible? That's what I can say about Voyagers. "It isn't terrible". A film that could have been better if it had taken some chances, Voyagers is passable fare but a bit frustrating in how it could have been more.

In the year 2063, if man is still alive, we find that climate change has gotten worse, so much worse that it requires a search for a new planet. Such a planet has been found, but it will take 86 years to get there. To circumvent the unfortunate aspect of traveling such a long time scientists genetically engineer humans who will be raised on the spaceship, breed in space, and then have their grandchildren colonize this new world.

I asked myself why not spend all that money they used on the spacecraft, selective breeding and raising these kids on climate change solutions instead, but whatever.

Going up with these space tykes is Richard (Colin Farrell), disillusioned with life on Earth One who will act as father-figure and mentor on the spaceship Humanitas as the children grow, with them now as teens.

I asked myself why did anyone think that sending only one adult into space with children who would be far too young or small to handle things should anything go wrong was a good idea, but again, whatever. 

The teens are drugged daily with "The Blue" a drink that suppresses their base instincts to make them docile and keeps their hormones in check (presumably until they are of age to breed the children whose own children will colonize the new world). 

At this point, Drax's whacked-out scheme in Moonraker is sounding more rational. 

Two of our teens, friends Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) discover The Blue's secret and secretly opt out of drinking it. Soon, their male aggressions and desires soon start emerging, and those desires lead to Sela (Lily-Rose Depp), the Medical Officer who has a close bond with Richard.

Once Richard is out of the picture a power struggle emerges between calm, rational Christopher and power-mad Zac, splitting the small group of teens into two camps. As they have all stopped drinking The Blue, no surprise that things like sexual desire and fierce fighting start breaking out left right and center. Everyone on the Humanitas believes an alien has entered the ship, but that is in doubt, perhaps an excuse for Zac to launch a coup d'etat against the duly elected Christopher.

The aggressions and lusts in space reaches a fever pitch until order is finally restored, with eventually the original plans brought back as the descendants see the new world at long last.

Many but many people have seen the parallel between Voyagers and Lord of the Flies to where it's a surprise writer/director Neil Burger does not literally give a story credit to Sir William Golding. The kids descending into chaos once adult supervision, isolated from society, is gone. The power struggle between two alpha males. A mysterious outside force as a danger. The killing of other members to hold on to power.

Seriously, all that was missing was a conch. Voyagers might as easy been titled Space Lord of The Flies. The only major change was the addition of women, and that didn't make Voyagers any better.

The women here were more objects of lusty desires than anything else. Even Sela, ostensibly the most rational of the group, had little to do apart from getting her boobs felt up by Zac (a moment that will either startle or cause laughter to viewers) or engage in PG-13 touching with Christopher. To keep that PG-13 rating, Voyagers had to fade to black before we saw Christopher and Sela indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, and even when we return to them, we see they kept their underwear on. 

One wonders how if things had kept to the original plans, any of these kids would have managed sex, let alone such things as the inevitable child rearing.

Other problems that have been pointed out by others is that in Voyagers, the minority characters are either minimized or killed off and for all the unleashed decadence none of these kids find any same-sex attraction. I don't know if having the black or Indian characters take charge or seeing Christopher and Zac taste each other's forbidden fruit would have improved Voyagers, but it would have been a nice change of pace. I don't think the killing of the minority characters or lack of homosexual characters was intentional but given the times we're in now the suspicion that it was hovers over the film.

Perhaps Voyagers' biggest problem is how serious it all is. There's a catatonic nature to everyone's acting that they look and act like zombies. Up to a point that's understandable as they are initially drugged, but that doesn't explain why Farrell's Richard can't seem to crack a smile and behaves just as zombie-like as his wards. Even after they are off The Blue, this group of hot pretty young things look so dull and emotionalless.

The exception is Whitehead, who chews into Zac's sudden and unexplained villainy with relish. I don't blame him as Zac is the only member of our runway model cast that is allowed to have anything close to emotions. I love Tye Sheridan as an actor, but Voyagers has to be among his worst performances. He was called to be a leader and heroic, but he looks so unhappy. Depp, attempting to ignite her own career following in her father's footsteps, similarly looked flat.

To Voyagers' credit the production design kept to a futuristic spaceship aesthetic of clean bright white corridors, though at times the special effects department got carried away with showing the speed it could travel down said corridors. The score too had some moments, though sometimes it blared too much and other times it was missing when the film could have benefitted from some music.

Voyagers could have been more, better, if it had taken some risks or not gone familiar routes. Again, all I can say is that Voyagers isn't terrible. It's serviceable, but among all its faults, that teens in space can be so tame when exploring carnal desires has to be the most outlandish element in Voyagers.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Sea Around Us: A Review



It's rare when a serious nonfiction book is turned into somewhat schlocky documentary, but don't count out Irwin Allen's ability to turn somber into sensationalist. While The Sea Around Us was quite innovative for its time, and did influence future nature films, it's quite dated today. 

Based on Rachel Carson's book on marine life, The Sea Around Us features narration that shifts from Genesis to Darwin to start its documenting of the mysteries of the deep. "This then is the Sea Around Us: born of the rain, cradled in the deep, guided by the Moon" we are told by one of its two narrators.

As we hop and skip around the ocean depths and various beachheads, we see all sorts of creatures, from tiny plankton to massive commercial fishing ships. We're treated to a battle royale between an octopus and a shark, along with such sights as shark walkers and crab herders, baby turtles and melting glaciers. All of these mysteries and wonders, however, are in peril. "What is the fate of the world? Is this The End?" we are asked in bold letters.

In some ways, The Sea Around Us is prescient in its warnings about the state of the oceans. It's a delicate balance between the needs of Man and the abuse of the waters. As a side note though, seeing that glaciers have been melting since at least 1952 can both help or hurt the cause of global warming/climate change if both sides can say it's been going on for over half a century.

The film also has some simply beautiful moments. A sequence involving the Nudibranch species is quite beautiful and arresting. The Sea Around Us also pioneered the manner of many future nature documentaries with its mix of footage, offbeat narration and music. It can be considered a precursor to the Walt Disney True Life Adventures series of documentaries.

In other ways however, The Sea Around Us is pretty bad. This is the type of film that while innovative at the time now looks like something you'd show to a bored elementary school class. The narration, written by Allen, seems more interested in being cutesy and/or clever than informative. When discussing microscopic marine life, the narration says "All movement is motivated by a desire to eat or not to be eaten", and the bit about shark walkers (men who wake drugged sharks for marine parks in the Sea World vein) was almost silly. 

Whether the octopus/shark fight is real or staged I don't know, but somehow it looks now like something out of Ed Wood. For a documentary about the "wilderness of water", there's a lot of above-water moments that seem a bit off.

Anyone who is old enough to remember when educational videos were on reel-to-reel cameras and shown in classrooms would think they'd seen The Sea Around Us even if they hadn't. It just has that literal old-school feel. A bit sensationalistic in its approach to nature to where one sees why Carson never allowed another film adaptation of her work, The Sea Around Us has good moments but not enough to keep people fully engaged.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Notorious: Aaron Hernandez. The Reelz Television Program



Reelz Channel's Notorious series was perhaps the first time the network brought the sad and sordid story of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez to its viewers. To be fair I don't know if Notorious: Aaron Hernandez preceded Aaron Hernandez: Murder Made Me Famous or not. Quibble again if technically Aaron Hernandez was already "notorious" or "famous" before he was convicted of killing his friend Odin Lloyd, but Aaron Hernandez: Notorious sticks to the series' typical fare. It's a pretty dry reiteration of the Lloyd murder case, which in this case is just enough to get a primer on this case.

With mostly narration and a few interviews, the basics of the Hernandez murder spree is recounted. We learn that Hernandez despite his outwardly charming personality was pretty much a loner throughout his football playing career both at the University of Florida and New England. He didn't socialize with his fellow teammates like the more upper-crust Tom Brady or gregarious Rob Gronkowski. Hernandez also failed to follow the influence of people like the strongly devout Christian Tim Tebow.

It wasn't as if no one tried: coaches and other teammates tried by sharing their family lives and spiritual guidance, but to no avail. Hernandez simply preferred the company of thugs and criminals real or wannabes. The struggles Hernandez had all stemmed from the tumultuous relationship he had with his father Dennis. Dennis Hernandez was both feared and loved: abusive but adored. "If it s to be, it is up to me," he would tell his sons, saying that if they wanted something they had to get it.

"With his volcanic rage and hair-trigger finger, Aaron Hernandez had become Notorious," the narration states. He had by the time of his arrest for the murder of Odin Lloyd already had a very violent past. The assault at a Gainesville bar when he refused to pay for a bar tab. The shooting of Corey Smith, a still-unresolved case where Hernandez was first identified as the shooter only to have the witness recant. The shooting of his former friend Alexander Bradley. The shooting of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, both of which were connected to Bradley's shooting. The murder of Odin Lloyd.

As a side note, what was devout Christian Tim Tebow doing at a bar with an underage Hernandez?

Strangely, his time in prison served to mend the relationship with his mother Teri, though not fully. Surprisingly acquitted of the de Abreu/Furtado murders, he nevertheless committed suicide a few days later. More than likely his suicide was in the hopes of applying an obscure Massachusetts law that vacated a murder conviction if the defendant died before all his appeals were exhausted. Hernandez postmortem also was found to have massive CTE, which may also have played a hand in his erratic and violent behavior. 

Reelz has featured Aaron Hernandez many times, almost to where it's become parody. There's been at least three Hernandez-themed specials. There was the sensationalistic Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields. That was followed by the salacious Aaron Hernandez: Jailhouse Lover Tells All. Finally, there was the surprisingly restrained and rational Aaron Hernandez: Life Inside. Hernandez has also been part of three Reelz Channel programs: this one (Notorious), Murder Made Me Famous and Autopsy

Notorious, as I said, sticks to a more grounded and serious level the program has. We do learn a few things, such as how father's words of wisdom influenced his son for good or ill. It also does not delve into Hernandez's complicated sex life. My guess is that his homosexuality/bisexuality was probably not well-known at the time.

It's an interesting albeit dry recitation of Aaron Hernandez's sordid and sad life. The conclusion Notorious has sums up Aaron Hernandez quite well though. "In the end, Aaron Hernandez's legacy of brilliance on the field will forever be coupled with his troubled life off the field". That is what made Aaron Hernandez "Notorious".


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Alice Adams (1935): A Review (Review #1475)



Aspirations to rise to better circumstances drive the title character in Alice Adams, but it's not a tale of snobbery gone wild. Rather, it's a story of a young woman desperate to be someone, someone more than she is, making her sympathetic.

Unlike her friends and acquaintances, Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) is from a poorer background. Her father Virgil (Fred Stone) could have become wealthy if he had pursued the glue formula he had developed with a fellow coworker, but he was pretty content to stay loyal to his employer J.A. Lamb (Charles Grapewyn). Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker) is loyal and loving to her family, but also distressed that Alice can't move up in the world because of their poverty.

As her circle does intermingle with the elite, Alice does attend a few parties. At one where her brother Walter (Frank Albertson) unhappily escorts her, she meets the young, wealthy and dashing Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), who may or may not be engaged to her frenemy Mildred (Evelyn Venable). While Arthur is taken by Alice and she with him, Alice is also deeply embarrassed and ashamed of her meager world compared to his.

Mrs. Adams finally gets Virgil to quit Lamb's clerk job and start his own glue works so they can move up. Alice hems and haws about Arthur: in love with him but uncertain about his feelings, let alone about how he will react to the depths of the Adams' family deprivation. After a disastrous dinner where the Adamses efforts to impress continuously go awry, both Walter and Virgil face financial ruin thanks to Walter's tricky accounting for Lamb's company and Lamb's assertion that the glue formula was his.

However, Alice stands up for her father and brother to Lamb, who has a change of heart. Arthur, despite her pleas, stays loyal to Alice and declares his love.

As I have not read Booth Tarkington's novel, I can't say how close or far Alice Adams the film stays or strays from the source material. However, here I think that the happy ending is closer to what audiences expected in a tale of love in peril. 

At the heart of Alice Adams' success (film and character) is Hepburn's performance. From the moment we first see her, we know the inner conflict, her yearnings to be better. As she goes into a flower shop and sees that despite her best efforts no flower is within her price range, the excuses she creates to not buy are thinly veiled efforts to shield what she considers her shame of poverty. 

We like her: her loyalty to her family, her resourcefulness, her deep longing to be not better than others but to be as good as others, or at least how she perceives them to be. "I ought to be something besides just a kind of nobody", she tells Arthur. This is Alice's unofficial motto, and says so much about her. She is not snobbish or trying to put on airs. Instead, she sees this beautiful world that is known to her but cannot fully enter it. She yearns for something better, an ambition to move forward and upward.

In Hepburn's performance you see that love both familial and romantic; when she goes to the window after failing to attract attention while sensing that Arthur, her dream man, is gone, she bursts into tears. It's a deeply moving moment that really hit the viewer.

A lot of the performances in Alice Adams were excellent. A real scene stealer is Hattie McDaniel as Melina, the maid hired to give the Adamses a touch of class. Far from being the highly skilled servant they would have like, Melina is a bit clumsy and confused. It's understandable given that she has little time to learn the lay of the land, and perhaps people will think that McDaniel was a bit of a stereotype.

I saw it through different eyes and think she subverted the cliché of the dimwitted colored maid by showing that in some things she had more sense than the Adams Family. She for example warned that the hot food they were serving was wrong for the weather. She also had wonderful bits of physical comedy, like when she all but thrusts caviar sandwiches at a startled Virgil, unaware of what this dish is. There's also physical comedy such as her struggle to open the sliding doors and a routine where her maid's cap kept slipping. It takes a lot to steal a scene from Katharine Hepburn, but McDaniel did.

Another strong performance was Albertson as Walter, who was more interested in gambling and enjoying himself than in Alice's social aspirations. While he was a reluctant participant, he too loved his sister and family despite his myriad of mistakes. Unlike Alice, he sees through the wealthy facades, constantly calling them "frozen faces". 

Sadly though, Walter's character was diminished by Alice's assertion that him socializing and gambling with "coloreds" was an eccentricity versus common sense. "He tells the most wonderful darky stories, and he'll do anything to get them to talk to him," Alice offers Arthur as a reason for his association with people of color. It's a bit cringe-inducing to hear that now, but one has to accept it as a sign of the times.

I would say MacMurray is the weakest link. It does seem incredible that Arthur doesn't at least see that the Adamses are poor and not in his circle. A plot point of whether he believes Virgil stole the formula is left there, though after the disastrous dinner I think he saw they couldn't pull off such a master feat. However, I think this is early in MacMurray's career, so I cut him some slack.

One can quibble that the stolen money and Russell romance situations resolve themselves quickly, but on the whole I found Alice Adams a wonderful and moving picture. With a pitch-perfect performance by Katharine Hepburn and a sympathetic character, Alice Adams is a heroine you want to succeed. It would be nice to see this story retold, but until we get a remake, this version is one worth seeking.  

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Aaron Hernandez: Life Inside. The Television Documentary


Reelz Channel is back to triple-dip on the late Aaron Hernandez. Having already suggested the former New England Patriots tight end was a serial killer in Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields, then featuring the boudoir confessions of Kyle Kennedy with Aaron Hernandez: Jailhouse Lover Tells All, now we have Aaron Hernandez: Life Inside. Unlike the haphazard Killing Fields or salacious Jailhouse Lover Tells All, Life Inside (which could have been re-titled Jailer Tells All) is surprisingly restraint, respectable and focused more on the man versus the monster.

Using a mix of reenactments and interviews, Life Inside involves Hernandez's eighteen months at the Bristol County House of Corrections after his arrest for the murder of Odin Lloyd. Here, Hernandez developed something a father-son relationship with Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the head of the corrections facility since 1997.

In two separate interviews Hodgson remembers and reflects on the troubled former NFL great. Hodgson found Hernandez pleasant and friendly, unless you "disrespected" him. At that point, he would become quite violent at any perceived disrespect intentional or not. His temper over any slight real or imagined was so great that Hernandez literally ate a letter rather than admit he was wrong when jailers searched his cell. 

Having worked in law enforcement for decades, Hodgson was no fool. While he recognized Hernandez's positive traits, he was also not taken in by Hernandez. He knew that Hernandez could and would use people to his own advantage.

In his first interview with Hernandez, where Hodgson was called in on his day off and appeared in shorts and a polo shirt, Hernandez flat-out told him no one could read people better than Aaron Hernandez. As such, he "deduced" Hodgson came in such casual attire as a way to gain Hernandez's confidence. Later on, he admitted to Hodgson that he was perhaps Hernandez's equal in reading people, but not his superior.

Sheriff Hodgson had two simple pieces of advise for Hernandez which he gave him at the beginning and end of his stay at the House of Correction: talk to your father and read the Bible. Hodgson believed that all of Hernandez's troubles and torments came from his tumultuous relationship with the late Dennis Hernandez. Aaron idolized Dennis despite Dennis' abusive nature. Hodgson speculates that to Aaron, any sign of disrespect to him was disrespecting Dennis.

It was also from Dennis that Aaron learned not to cry in front of others. This was strange advise given that according to Aaron, his father cried often in front of others. Given that advise, Hodgson was surprised when Aaron cried publicly when acquitted of the double murders of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado. It was the fact that Hernandez was found not guilty when he knew he was guilty, Hodgson speculates, that pushed Hernandez into suicide.

Those two pieces of advise: talk to your father and read the Bible, sadly did not help Aaron Hernandez.

Life Inside is different from the two preceding Aaron Hernandez-centered specials in a variety of ways. First, the separate Hodgson interviews paint a more sympathetic portrait of Hernandez (which Hodgson repeatedly pronounces as "Her-nan-deez" versus "Her-nan-dez"). The story of how Aaron had visited his father's grave only once is quite sad. 

It also features a credible subject. Unlike Jailhouse Lover Tells All's Kyle Kennedy aka Pure, Sheriff Hodgson does not focus on any potentially unsavory or scandalous elements of his most famous inmate. His portrait of Hernandez is essentially that of a lost boy, one who was deeply broken and tormented by the demons he carried. As a side note, unlike Kennedy, Hodgson not only sounds more credible but also coherent.

Unlike previous Hernandez-centered documentaries, Life Inside stays almost wholly away from other elements such as his drug use or homosexual or bisexual aspect of Hernandez's private life. The closest the program comes to bringing up Hernandez's sexual orientation is when he recounts how the Odin Lloyd murder may have been triggered by a friend of Lloyd's allegedly calling Hernandez a "punk" and "one of those funny people". That's as close to a suggestion that Hernandez's allegedly secret gay life was the trigger to Lloyd's murder.

Hodgson isn't excusing or trying to explain away Hernandez's life of crime, merely noting that Hernandez was in desperate need of genuine affirmation. This is noted throughout Life Inside with revelations from Hodgson that Hernandez preferred basketball over football but dropped the former when his father became adamant his son pursue the latter. 

A more chilling tale is when a former college football teammate offered forgiveness after a falling out. Hernandez, according to Hodgson, calmly stated that once he got his former friend in a relaxed manner, he cold-clocked him for revenge.

Hernandez's hair-trigger temper is brought up by other interviewees, who remark how all these slights and acts of disrespect real or imagined would get Hernandez's ire. These, unfortunately, led to violent retributions. We hear the reluctance of other NFL teams who, while seeing Hernandez's talent, couldn't get past his shockingly low self-esteem and emotional health issues. It was an ominous scouting report that proved that past is prologue.

The focus on the case and in particular the more father-son aspect makes Aaron Hernandez: Life Inside a more professional, respectable telling of this oft-told tale than past Reelz ventures. It's probably the most sympathetic portrait of Hernandez that Reelz has made, and one of the most sympathetic overall. Perhaps if someone decades earlier had told Aaron Hernandez "Talk to your father and read the Bible" or if Hernandez had taken up those challenges, the entire tragedy that destroyed so many lives might have never happened.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong: A Review



The COVID-19 pandemic/panic appears to be over. More people are getting the various vaccines. More states are not just allowing businesses and facilities to reopen with varying degrees of capacity but lifting mask requirements. Sports venues are now allowed to have more fans, and in some cases actual fans versus cardboard cutouts.

However, the biggest indicator that people are either less afraid or flat-out disinterested in the perpetual lockdowns is the return of giant tent-pole feature films to large-screen theaters. Our first example is Godzilla vs. Kong, technically not the first encounter between the giant lizard and the giant gorilla but the most recent one. Plotless, pointless but quite pretty, Godzilla vs. Kong gives audiences what it thinks it wants and I've no complaints.

Godzilla vs. Kong has two separate plots rolling through it. Plot 1 (because I'm not sure which is the main plot, but I think it's this one) is how Kong will be kept much longer in his Skull Island simulation. There's something about evil businessman Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) who wants to send Kong down into Earth's core. Something about a Hollow Earth in Earth's core and scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), Kong whisperer Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her deaf daughter Jia (Kailee Hottle) who get Kong to travel to this world where something about reverse gravity.

Joining them is Walter's daughter Maya (Eiza Gonzalez) and a nefarious plot to harvest energy that will allow Walter and his sidekick/Charles Xavier wannabe Ren (Shun Oguri) to control their newest creation: Mechagodzilla.

Plot 2 involves Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), annoying daughter of Mark (Kyle Chandler). She suspects something caused the normally peaceful Godzilla to attack the Pensacola facility of Simmons' APEX Cybernetics Corporation. Joining her is APEX employee/podcaster/Titan conspiracy nut Bernie (Bryan Tyree Henry) and some random British guy Josh (Julian Dennison), they begin their own investigation into the dark recesses of APEX Cybernetics, ones that get them from Pensacola to Hong Kong in mere minutes via a secret super-high-speed underwater transportation system, facing off against Mechagodzilla, and trying to stop Mechagodzilla from killing the real thing.

Godzilla and Kong fight each other in Hong Kong, then join forces to destroy the crazed Mechagodzilla.

As I sat (and I confess, slept for a few minutes) through Godzilla vs. Kong, I thought how much fun the shoot must have been. If not fun, at least financially rewarding for many involved, because Godzilla vs. Kong is something you enjoy just with your eyes, not your brain. For how the original King Kong is a landmark in film history and the original Godzilla a tale of nuclear war anxiety, it has created a fantasy universe that is so much cinema candy: unhealthy but quite tasty. 

You can't look at Bichir's performance and think he's being serious. He was ramping up the camp to full blast and then some, so wildly over-the-top you could see him swallowing up not just scenery but his castmates whole. He wasn't acting, but he was hilarious in his deliberately campy manner.

I think you can also bless the actors for delivering their lines with any hint of sincerity. I marvel at Chandler, who stubbornly defies the aging process for looking at least twenty years younger than his current age of 55. I marvel not just at Chandler's ability to look pretty much like he did when he starred in 2005's King Kong but in spouting such lines as "Titans like people can change! Right now Godzilla is hurting people and we don't know why!" and trying to make it sound like it came from a functioning human.

I also bless the physical perfection that is Alexander Skarsgard, who was also going for something different with Dr. Lind. Here, he was more bumbling, slightly dim scientist than action hero. He mentions something about a brother who died trying to enter Hollow Earth, but that's about it in the character department. I take time to also acknowledge Henry, who appears to have decided Godzilla vs. Kong was about his crazed conspiracy nut and tried to inject a semblance of humor into things.

Hall, bless her too, for trying to make a character out of nothing, her rapport with Jia the best aspects of that part. I disliked Brown but put that more to her somewhat whiny character than the actress herself. 

I am not ignoring the various issues in Godzilla vs. Kong. I thought to myself that the super-high-speed transport that takes Plot 2 from Pensacola to Hong Kong in a matter of minutes would be a far better moneymaker to Camp Villain Simmons than whatever silliness he cooked up with Mechagodzilla. How Bernie could go around these secret facilities with nary a problem is also not a big question. Who exactly Josh is or what purpose he serves to be fair might have been mentioned while I dozed off, so I'm not going to be too picky on that.

However, Godzilla vs. Kong is there to feature our two "Titans" clash, and Clash these Titans did. I think Godzilla was the winner, but of course you couldn't kill off Kong. How would that be any fun? I give credit that Godzilla vs. Kong is quite beautiful to look at: the bright colors, well-crafted special effects and the physical perfection that is Alexander Skarsgard all working well. Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL)'s score seems a mashup of Blade Runner and TRON: Legacy, and I thought well of it even if it was more a shadow of those two films than truly original.

Of course, the climatic battle has to be in Hong Kong because the film has to appeal to the vast Chinese market, and if one wants to extend any sense of allegory to it, I imagine Beijing wants to do to Hong Kong what Godzilla, Kong and Mechagodzilla did to it in the film: destroy it completely. 

Godzilla vs. Kong reminds me of a Universal Studios ride. Oftentimes, it looked like one and I figure we'll have a Godzilla vs. Kong theme ride soon enough. As such, Godzilla vs. Kong should be seen as a theme park ride with some pauses for whatever passes for plot or character development. I can't fault it for not pretending to be anything else.


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Mulan (2020): A Review



I am at a unique position to review 2020's much-delayed Mulan in that I have yet to see the original animated version. As such, apart from the absence of Mushu the dragon I cannot note what differences there are between the animated and live-action version. Mulan has many positive qualities but it's a bit hard divorcing its qualities from some of its production.

Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) is the elder daughter of Hua Zhao (Tzi Ma), a once great warrior who now is infirm with old age and a war injury. The Rourans, headed by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) are invading China and the Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to provide one male for his Imperial Army.

At first Zhao plans to go, but in the dark of night Mulan steals his armor and sword to take his place. Now disguised as "Hua Jun", Mulan channels her "chi" to become a mighty warrior. She also reluctantly makes if not friendships at least comradeship with her fellow troops. Chief among them is Huanhui (Yoson An), who sparks curious feelings.

However, the Rourans continue their war and the Chinese are unaware that Bori Khan has a secret weapon: the sorceress Xianniang (Gong Li). She not only is a shapeshifter but a powerful witch who can command great resources against Bori Khan's enemies. Xianniang sees a kindred spirit in Mulan, the light to her darkness, but Mulan will not betray her people. Mulan is forced to reveal herself and gain both her fellow warriors trust and family honor as she and her friends confront the Rourans in a final battle.

As I have yet to see the original Mulan, I certainly can't compare. What I saw in this Mulan was a beautiful looking film that had some issues in terms of character. The various sets and costumes were quite well-crafted, with the scenes of the Imperial Throne Room exceptionally dazzling visually.

However, I think Mulan suffered from being overly serious and stern, as if wanting to erase any suggestion that past versions had any sense of lightness. Even the few times the characters try to crack wise, particularly at the expense of chubby recruit Cricket (Jun Yu) or some comedy bits with Mulan's bungled tea ceremony, it falls flat.

Yes, war is a serious subject, but the lack of joy in any of their lives makes it hard to enjoy.

As for Mulan herself, her "chi" is essentially the equivalent of the Star Wars universe's "The Force". She does not grow to become a mighty warrior as she is a mighty warrior from birth. At the opening, we see her effortlessly float down from the highest roof in her circular village. By making Mulan essentially perfect from the get-go, you lose a sense of her growth as a warrior and a woman. Liu is fine as Mulan, able to do the warrior part but less confident when called upon for a hint of comedy.

The other roles are surprising in that Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee are almost unrecognizable. It would have been nice to have seen them fight each other, but also Li in particular didn't seem to be important enough to feature. I also think Hollywood has done Gong Li wrong by having her vamp it up to full force as this sorceress. She shows hints of wanting to be more fully-rounded but the script pushes her down again and again.

I do wonder about how the closing song Loyal, Brave and True works. It wasn't a bad song but for some reason both the delivery and the visuals made it look like it was a Bond theme.  

Mulan is not a bad film, but it could have been more. As it is, it's entertaining enough.


Saturday, April 3, 2021

Aaron Hernandez: Jailhouse Lover Tells All. The Television Documentary


Reelz Channel won't let go of Aaron Hernandez. A network that switches between profiling celebrities in trouble and true-crime found the ideal figure in the late New England Patriots player. Not satisfied with delving into a story that paints Hernandez as a serial killer, Reelz returns to the Hernandez well with the salaciously titled Jailhouse Lover Tells All.  

Kyle Kennedy, already featured in Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields, now is brought back to tell not just his alleged relationship with the disgraced tight end, but also about himself. In turns shocking and oddball, Jailhouse Lover Tells All reveals surprisingly little that wasn't already known or suspected.

This "major television event", once again hosted by Dylan Howard, features the story of Inmate W107335, also known as Pure. It was a circuitous route Kyle Kennedy went through to earn his nickname. First it was "Cocaine" (because he was crazy and white, as he tells it in his slow cadence), then it went to "Pure Cocaine", but as that was too long, it was shortened to just "Pure". 

Meeting in prison, Kennedy and Hernandez soon became not just fast friends but lovers. Hernandez was Kennedy's first male lover according to Kennedy, but there were strict parameters. Hernandez initiated the physical relationship by performing oral sex on Kennedy, then moving on to intercourse where Kennedy was on the receiving end. Not once according to what I understood from Kennedy did Hernandez ever receive either oral or anal sex. 

Hernandez also confessed to being unsure if he was gay, and that to have sex with his long-term fiancee Shayanna Jenkins he needed to think of men or be "super high". 

The carnal pleasures were not the only aspects of the Kennedy/Hernandez relationship. As a leader in the Bloods gang, Kennedy soon found himself second fiddle to Hernandez, who now was the "shot caller" in that prison gang. Hernandez quickly became something of a drug kingpin among the other inmates, with Kennedy at his side. "He was the most loyalist person," Kennedy remembers. They would spend their days getting high, cooking meals, selling drugs, writing each other love letters.

Kennedy would also hear Hernandez's confessions to his many crimes. Not only did Hernandez admit to killing Odin Lloyd, but bragged about having four murders. That would be Lloyd, Daniel de Abreu, Safiro Furtado and Jordan Miller, the latter apparently a case of mistaken identity. 

While in prison, Kennedy claims Hernandez talked about what his life post-prison would be like. He wanted to both go into business with and marry Kyle Kennedy. The businesses would actually be, Kennedy asserts, fronts to sell drugs. However, by the end of their affair Kennedy saw that the weight of the trials was making Hernandez more mentally unstable. Hernandez, according to Pure, was highly paranoid, convinced everyone he talked to was an undercover officer waiting to get the goods on him. 

While Kennedy eventually found himself in a minimum-security prison, Aaron Hernandez hanged himself on April 19, 2017.

I cannot help think that if Kennedy really was Hernandez's "jailhouse lover", then Hernandez had remarkably poor taste in men. The idea that this heavily-tattooed, poorly educated criminal would not only inspire lust but genuine romantic love in Hernandez seems almost ludicrous. Granted, people love whomever they do for their own reasons. However, for someone like Hernandez, who may have been a self-loathing gay or bisexual man terrified of being outed, it doesn't seem logical to think he would leave his fiancee and daughter to publicly marry another man after being acquitted of three murders.

This claim that Hernandez wanted to marry Kennedy is more puzzling given that a possible motive for the Odin Lloyd murder was that Lloyd may have discovered or walked in when Hernandez was having a same-sex tryst. As such, why would someone so deeply buried in the closet turn quickly around to be in a same-sex marriage if and when he beat the rap? 

Jailhouse Lover Tells All seems ludicrous on many levels. Kennedy claims to have had many love letters but could only produce one via his attorney where Hernandez talks about loving him. The other letters, Kennedy states, were flushed down the toilet. Already the lack of physical evidence makes one dubious of the true nature of their relationship if any. 

That Hernandez was more than likely gay or bisexual has stronger evidence, but Kennedy can't provide much if any evidence of a sexual relationship, let alone a romantic one.

Even Jose Baez, Hernandez's defense attorney, dismisses the idea of a Hernandez/Kennedy affair. Baez doesn't dismiss Hernandez being gay, but flat-out rejects Kennedy's claims. When presented with the sole letter talking about Hernandez "loving" Kennedy, Baez retorts "Aaron told everyone he loved them".

Another curious element is in Kennedy's assertion that Hernandez and he were major players in the Bloods gang. Again, I'm not a prison gang expert, but I always thought the Bloods were primarily if not exclusively a black gang. The notion of this very white man and the Hispanic former football star taking on major roles in even the local Bloods gang seems bizarre. Again, perhaps not impossible, but quite out of the ordinary.

What is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Jailhouse Lover Tells All is Howard's total unquestioning belief in Kyle Kennedy's story. Rarely if ever does Howard push back to Kennedy's myriad of claims. Instead, he pushes back against Baez, the man who doubts Kennedy's myriad of claims. It's to where Kennedy could claim he and Hernandez danced naked bathed in the blood of chickens before hosting a prison orgy and Howard would merely nod his head in agreement. Kyle Kennedy comes across as an unreliable witness, one who could say what people want to hear. Again he might be thoroughly truthful in his stories of life with Aaron Hernandez, but one has wide room for doubt.

As a side note, Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields mentioned an attempted murder Hernandez is alleged to have taken part in while at the University of Florida. Curiously, despite their many conversations Hernandez never appeared to have brought up the Corey Smith case to Kennedy. Moreover, Howard never asks Kennedy about the Smith case.  

Aaron Hernandez: Jailhouse Lover Tells All may be true, but it can't get away from being highly questionable, as well as tacky and tawdry. "The things we talked about...it wouldn't be believable," Kennedy says early on. On that I figure many would agree.